Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT
China Unicom, the country's second-largest telecom operator in terms of overall subscribers, has recently launched an unlimited data plan, joining its overseas counterparts in the trend of unlimited data offerings as hungrier users are in need of heavier yet more convenient data usage.
A comparison of China Unicom's data plan and those offered by major US mobile carriers reveals the bold move taken by the Chinese telecom operator. Meanwhile, Unicom's domestic rivals have remained more conservative about entering the unlimited data race.
The move, even in China Unicom's case, by no means indicates that the rise in cellular data usage is threatening the prevalence of Wi-Fi, just as the growing popularity of unlimited data plans in the US won't replace Wi-Fi for the foreseeable future.
To be more frank, the much-hyped unlimited data plans are more a play on words rather than being technically unlimited, a shared dilemma for mobile carriers, or actually the users, across the Pacific.
China Unicom's new data plan with the fancy name, bingjiling, which literally means ice cream, not only instantly makes the State-owned telecom operator sound cool - a trait that seems to be more often associated with the private Internet firms thriving in the country - but also puts the struggling telecom operator again in the limelight.
China Unicom arguably did a good job in the 3G era using its partnership with Apple, the iPhone maker, to lure in a multitude of high-end users. However, the iPhone dividend has gradually been tapering off as China's two other major telecom operators - China Mobile and China Telecom - also partnered with Apple to sell subsidized iPhones. China Unicom's strength dwindled further with the arrival of 4G. The latest operating statistics from the three operators show that China Mobile had a total of 552 million 4G users by the end of January, with China Telecom coming in second with 127 million users and China Unicom in third with 111 million.
It's thus possible that China Unicom feels compelled to stay abreast with the unlimited data plan hype in an attempt to get back into the competition for high-spending premium users. This has driven the telecom operator to launch the "ice cream" data plan which comes in two versions - one for 198 yuan ($28.65) per month for unlimited data usage plus 1,500 minutes of free calling and the second for 398 yuan per month for unlimited data usage and calling. Adding temptation to the mix, China Unicom is offering a 50 percent discount on the 398 yuan plan until the end of March so long as users prepay at least 1,000 yuan.
China Mobile is reportedly launching a similar plan, named aboluo, or "Apollo." The plan is expected to include a flat-rate fee of 198 yuan per month, however no official announcement has been made. China Telecom has no similar plans.
Both China Unicom's and China Mobile's plans will be more affordable than similar offerings from major US mobile carriers like Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T, where monthly starting points range from $60 to $100. Certainly, unlimited data offerings are more diversified in the US market where the unlimited-plan battle is much more fast-paced. In a sign, T-Mobile did away with its old plans in August 2016 in favor of a single unlimited plan.
With the announcement of the more generous data plan, China Unicom apparently is looking to attract users with a heavy reliance on data usage. Nonetheless, it will be harder to justify the need for cellular data usage over Wi-Fi in China. Executives at Verizon, the largest carrier in the US as measured by total subscribers, have repeatedly downplayed the need for unlimited plans, even as the carrier has recently announced its unlimited data plan. The emergence of unlimited plans is not a new phenomenon but rather a revival of offerings as current technology makes it plausible to open the floodgates on cellular data usage.
Still, unlimited data barely poses a threat to Wi-Fi, regardless of the upcoming 5G era that touts much faster connectivity. In addition to spotty cellular coverage, a host of unlimited plans are not exactly "unlimited." For example, users of Verizon's unlimited plan face the risk of throttling their data speeds after going over 22 gigabyte of data, and the plan also stipulates mobile hotspot will be reduced to 3G speeds after 10 gigabyte of data usage per month.
China Unicom's unlimited plan seems more appealing, with its 398 yuan plan offering 40 gigabyte of data per month at 4G speeds before being reduced to 3G. But it comes with caveats that include a daily limit of up to 2 gigabytes of data at 4G and a monthly data limit of 100 gigabytes.
For truly heavy data users who prefer to do everything on their mobile and may be tempted to switching to an unlimited plan, 2 gigabytes of high-speed data per day is hardly enough, considering that streaming videos easily use 1 gigabyte an hour. For those who still prioritize Wi-Fi wherever and whenever it is available, there's no need to trade in old mobile plans for unlimited ones.
With plenty of limits behind the unlimited plans, it's more realistic to envision these mobile plans as still coexisting with Wi-Fi usage.
The author is a reporter with the Global Times. email@example.com